Information for men whose partners have been diagnosed with breast cancer


How should a man deal with the fact that the woman he loves has been diagnosed with breast cancer? She's devastated. So are you.

She admits it, acts like it. If you’re a typical man, you don't admit you're devastated (perhaps even to yourself), and you focus on being a tough, tower of strength. You support the woman you love and don't show, or worry about your feelings. This is how guys are supposed to act, right?

Maybe not.

If you really want to support the woman you love through her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, you owe it to her and you owe it to yourself to make sure you’re fit, well, and mentally prepared for the task ahead. Spending time on this website is a good place to start.


What she might be feeling

Women with breast cancer often say they don't have time to think about their partner much. Having some insight into how the woman you love might be feeling after diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer will help you respond more effectively.

  • She may be distressed if she senses you withdrawing. The feelings you have of fear, sadness and helplessness may cause you to do this to try to protect her.
  • Understand the emotional effects of the disease on her. Minor things may become gigantic. She may cry and snap at you – you may barely recognise the woman you love. Recognise that little things can become big issues. Sometimes angry feelings can get spread all over the place!
  • Acknowledge the 'bad things' associated with the diagnosis. The treatment may make her sick. It may make her depressed. Breast cancer is a life-threatening illness that she and you need to come to terms with. There’s a great temptation to be 'positive' but this isn’t usually constructive.
  • Provide support through listening without judging. When she’s distressed, allow her to express her feelings.

How do you feel?

Make no mistake: the impact of the woman you love having breast cancer is every bit as overwhelming and distressing for partners and other close family members as it is for the patient. Should you even be considering your own feelings when the woman you love is the one with cancer? Yes, you should. A diagnosis of cancer affects everyone, including you.

Is what you’re feeling normal?

You don’t have to pretend everything’s OK. It isn’t.The woman you love has been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness.

She may need to have a breast removed. She may be sick for a long time. She might be ashamed of her body. She may not be able to live the life she once did. You will have to fill some new roles to compensate. You may have to take on more responsibility at home. You will have to fit visits to hospital and doctor around your schedule.

The control you might have thought you had over your life has vanished. It’s hardly surprising therefore that most men in this situation struggle to come to terms with their new situation. If you’re struggling, you’re normal.

You probably don’t really know what you are up against. Or whether you’ll be able to cope. Acknowledge these feelings, and decide to work on understanding them, communicating them, and gradually getting them under control.

You owe it to yourself, and to the woman you love to do so. If you’re an emotional mess you can’t support the woman you love the way you want to, or in the way she needs you to.

Typical feelings

Here’s a list of typical feelings other men have described about their reaction to learning the woman they love has been diagnosed with breast cancer. If it’s on the list it’s because many men in your situation have mentioned it. You’re not alone.

  • Feeling guilty? Wondering what you did to bring it on? There’s no cause for the illness which makes it hard to understand.
  • Frustrated at not being able to fix the situation?
  • Unprepared, shocked, disbelieving?
  • Worried about your own ability to cope with the loss of your partner’s breast?
  • Isolated? You may feel very alone when the woman you love is in hospital and find it hard to ask for help.
  • Feeling moody or lacking in energy?
  • Experiencing gnawing fears behind your controlled exterior?
  • Difficulty in concentrating, disrupted sleep, appetite changes, loss, sadness, powerless?
  • Difficulty in coping with the emotional and physical distress felt by the woman you love?
  • Worried and guilty about finances?

It’s never easy to discuss your feelings. You may not know what to say and you may not want to seek help for yourself when you believe the major support should be for the woman you love. Most men find it easier to put their own needs on hold. While it’s tempting to try to protect her by not expressing your feelings, or by trying to be positive, it’s important that the woman you love knows how you feel.

Fear of death

Cancer is a life-threatening illness, not a death sentence. But the issue of mortality is there and should be acknowledged. A sanitised view, that everything will be OK like thinking positively is considered the right thing to do, but isn’t necessarily helpful.

  • Acknowledge your fears
    You may fear the cancer itself – that it may come back or that the woman you love may die. You might be concerned about dealing with her emotional changes or you might be concerned about whether she’ll be able to have children in future. These are all natural feelings.
  • Share your fears with your partner
    Although this can be difficult, it can be very helpful for both of you. Most women are touched to hear their partner’s concerns, and hearing that you’re scared too can open communication about issues you’re both finding difficult.
  • Focus on quality of life, not on quantity.
  • Ask for help
    Get professional help if you need it, talk to someone, talk to each other, try speaking to your doctor, minister, priest or other spiritual advisor.

Sexuality and intimacy

Breast cancer has all the issues of the other cancers, plus the added complication of sexuality and body image.The physical effects of breast cancer on the woman you love are a significant aspect of the disease.

Apart from the potential loss of all or part of a breast, early menopause from chemotherapy, infertility and the effect of treatment on libido, there are also issues of body image, sexual attractiveness and femininity.

As a couple, you may experience changes in your sexual relationship. This can be caused by physical or psychosocial reasons or both. Some cancer treatments can have a major impact on sex drive. The physical change to a woman can have a profound effect on her body image and this will affect her feelings of sexuality and love-making. Some women find it hard to undress in front of their husband after surgery.

Getting past the physical appearance

It can be hard to get past the physical changes associated with treatment for breast cancer – for some men, it can be very hard. It may require a conscious re-evaluation of your own attitude. You may need to reprogram your thinking. Keep in mind what you know, that you are in love with a person, not with her body.

How to deal with breast cancer and sexuality

Communication, information and patience are the keys to understanding and coping with the physical and psychosocial effects of breast cancer on sexuality. Here are some suggestions to help you deal with the impact of breast cancer treatment on your sexual relationship.

  • Sexuality comes and goes. There’s a need to heal physically and sexually after treatment for breast cancer. If sex is important to you as a couple then you need to take time to re-create the sexual bond.
  • Information about how chemotherapy can cause early menopause can help you and the woman you love cope with the effects of this.
  • Talk to each other, take things slowly, spend time getting used to being naked together.
  • Sexuality is not just about sex. Couples may need to take a few steps back and build on intimacy (emotional not physical), strengthen communication, talk about needs. Our brain is our most important sex organ!
  • Don’t avoid the issue. She may interpret your distance (whatever the reason) as confirmation that she’s no longer desirable.
  • It’s still OK to have sex throughout.
  • The double bind: “It didn’t matter if I told her 37 times it didn’t change my feelings for her.” You may find it hard to convince the woman you love of your commitment. This can cause hostility and feelings of rejection on your part. You can handle these effectively if you’re aware that the situation may occur and have learned methods of dealing with it.
  • Be aware that sexual attractiveness and body image extends beyond the bedroom.
  • Talk to a professional if you are having problems adjusting. Studies show that mastectomy patients’ partners who received counselling were less distressed and more prepared to help the woman they love cope.

Impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on kids

It’s is a good idea to read up on the impact breast cancer can have on children. Ask your children about the concerns they may have.The children may ‘play up.'

Talking to them about their concerns, understanding what is underlying their behaviour, will help you both cope and should help improve their behaviour.

Knowing what to say

What do you say to someone who, out of the blue, has been diagnosed with cancer? Many men in this situation have admitted that they didn’t know what to say. They were terrified of saying the wrong thing, and upsetting the woman they love. They ended up saying very little. All the evidence suggests that this is the worst thing you can do.

Professional advice suggests you should communicate – as much as possible, more than ever before – with the woman you love. The following tips might be helpful.

  • It’s OK to ask her how she is feeling (she wants to know you care). Do this often if you can.
  • It’s OK to say “I don’t know what to say” (she then at least knows you are feeling and thinking about her).
  • The best advice is to be human – tell her how you are feeling, talk about ways in which she feels you can help and support her most.
  • “Don’t worry” sounds reassuring, but is in fact asking the woman you love to do something that’s impossible. Of course she is going to worry. So are you. There is something wrong with both of you if you don’t.
  • Understand that small things can really make a difference, both positively and negatively, to the woman you love during her diagnosis and treatment. Many things are affecting her and small things that would normally not upset her now do. Similarly, small things you do for her, which would not usually be noticed or commented on, can bring great joy and comfort.
  • Be prepared for the woman you love to react more energetically than usual to lots of small things. Recognise the extra reaction when it occurs, and accept it. There’s nothing either of you can do about it and trying to fight it will only make matters worse. The Americans have a word for your tactics here: “Chill”.
  • Be aware that other men in her life – brothers, uncles, fathers, friends and so on – will be facing exactly the same dilemma as you. Make sure they understand that communicating is extremely important, and that they must overcome the fear of not knowing what to say as well.

Help her by helping yourself

You probably also need help and support. The following tips may be useful:

  • Ask for help if you’re overwhelmed
    This isn’t a sign of weakness. It takes courage to face reality and take control of the situation. Talk to your friends and family. If they can’t relate find people who can. Find out about cancer support groups in your area. If you’re not a talker find other ways to understand what you are going through. Write them down.
  • Take time out to recharge your batteries
    Look on it as ‘filling the petrol tank’ rather than trying to run on ‘empty’. Women often worry about their partner and it can be a great relief for them to see you having a break. There’s also some evidence that having some ‘normal’ things in your life helps.
  • Talking generally helps make it better, not worse
    Open up the subject for discussion. Talk about thoughts, feelings and fears. Some people feel uncomfortable broaching the subject. Bring it up with them. Let them know you need to talk about it. Acknowledge the impact this has on your life.
  • Active coping not positive ignorance
    You may worry that if you are not being positive and strong, she may take longer to recover. There’s no consistent evidence that this is the case. Keeping all the concerns to yourself adds to the burden. There’s also evidence that active coping (i.e. thinking things through, getting information and talking) helps, and avoidance of issues is associated with more distress.
  • Monitor your relationship:
    Acknowledge the difficulties you’re facing. If you were having problems with your relationship before, they will be magnified by the stress you’re now under. The same goes for work or social problems. Issues don’t disappear with diagnosis. Be as active (not passive) in thinking through and solving problems as you can. When in doubt – get a second opinion.

Healing strategies – tips that often work

  • Get to grips with the subject: research it.
    As men, we like to get a handle on problems. That means you need information and there’s plenty available. Look at all of the links on this site. Read, research, get a better understanding of what breast cancer is. Gather information about treatments, doctors, and complementary therapies and about what resources and services there are to help you.
  • Don't assume
    You can’t assume the woman you love will provide the sort of facts that will give you the tools to help adjust. You also can’t assume that the woman you love will take in or understand everything her medical support team tell her. She is under significant stress. Make sure you go to appointments with her, and run through everything that was said again afterwards.
  • Discuss your findings with her
    Make sure both of you know what is going on.
  • Be the organised one
    Keep a calendar of appointments and treatments, deal with financial and insurance issues. Keep track of the kids' routines and family matters.
  • Go with her to the doctor: (if she wants you to)
    You can provide support and you may be in a better position to make sense of information provided by doctors. Many women report feeling so shocked during hospital visits that they can’t take everything in. Take a note pad and ask questions if you don’t understand.
  • Ask for help with practical things
    Friends and family really want to help and will be grateful for a specific request like picking the kids up from school or making a meal to take home. Advice from men who have been through this experience is not to be 'proud', and say you can handle it. Accept all offers of help – it helps friends and family to deal with the illness if they can actively help. Help might mean asking a friend to call every couple of days, for example.
  • Take time out to be with her
    Be around. Take time off work. Cut down on other activities to be with the woman you love. You may feel it’s not fixing anything, but it’s helping make it better. Asking for help from friends and family will free up your time.
  • It’s OK to have fun and try to keep your life as normal as possible
    Use humour and laugh when you can. Maintain a social life. Have a holiday. Adapt, don’t switch off.
  • Resume former activities as soon as possible but be aware that after completion of active treatment, women often feel the pressure to ‘get back to normal.’ This can cause distress or anger as they feel that their experience has been trivialised. In effect, the goal posts have shifted. You can still play the game, but the rules are different. By accepting that things are different, you can take the pressure off the woman you love and yourself.
  • Think ahead
    Help prepare for hospital stays by organising books, CD's, DVD's, or other items to make her stay more comfortable. Give her extra hugs and assurance. Take the kids out so she can rest.
  • Be realistic about your financial situation
    During treatment, there will be new expenses to meet and there may have been a drop in family income. Don’t feel guilty if you’re finding it tough. Communication is the key. Talk to employers and see what can be negotiated. Employers can’t offer to help if they don’t know what you are facing. Raise the issue with your doctor. There may be benefits you’re entitled to. Also let your colleagues know what you are going through. They can be a source of help and support.
  • Celebrate treatment anniversaries and victories
    Acknowledge that she will be stressed around key anniversary times. Don’t ignore this, do something special to mark the date. Celebrate victories too.

Where to find support for partners

Where to find support for men whose partners have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

  • The Cancer Council Helpline – 13 11 20
    The Cancer Council Helpline is a free, confidential telephone information and support service run by Cancer Councils in each state and territory. Specially trained staff can answer questions about all aspects of cancer, including prevention, early detection, and treatment. They can also assist with practical and emotional support and advise callers about specific services appropriate to their needs and location.

    Call The Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20 (cost of a local call from anywhere in Australia) between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Some states have extended hours, some have health professionals on staff, and some have multilingual services.
  • Men's Line Australia – 1300 78 99 78
    Provides telephone counselling, information and referral for men to help manage the challenges encountered when they face disruptions to their family life or primary relationships. Helpline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
    24-hour telephone helpline staffed by trained volunteer telephone counsellors
  • Beyond Blue
    Community awareness campaign designed to reduce the stigma associated with depression and to promote help-seeking behaviour.
  • Grieflink
    Information resource on death-related grief for the community and health professionals. Based in South Australia but includes some national information.